Beyond the Lectionary Text: Daniel 1

by Joel Schreurs

Comments and Observations

There was a cheery sign beside the highway that led out of the small Midwestern town where I grew up. The purpose of the sign was, ostensibly, to thank visitors for coming and to encourage them to return soon. But according to my high school carpool buddy, Bryan, the sign also served a more important purpose: it marked the outer limits of our small town cops’ jurisdiction. Bryan, who always seemed to have the inside scoop on these sorts of things, claimed that if you were driving on the north side of the sign, all bets were off. The cops could (and would!) nab you for going fifty-six in a fifty-five. But if you were on the south side of the sign, you were off limits. The cops couldn’t touch you there. So every morning when we passed the sign going out of town, Bryan would gleefully punch the gas and take his little red Chevy well past the speed limit. And every afternoon, just before reentering what we believed to be the local police department’s jurisdiction, he would tap on the brakes and bring the car back under speed limit.

I doubt that Bryan had his legal facts straight. However, his understanding of jurisdiction is helpful when trying to enter into the world of Daniel 1. Because most people in Daniel’s world (including those who first read the book that bears his name) operated with a “theology of jurisdiction.” They tended to believe that there were many gods, and that each of these gods operated within a fairly limited jurisdiction. One god ruled the hills. Another ruled the valleys. One god ruled the sun. Another ruled the rain. One God ruled in Jerusalem. And others, it was believed, ruled in Babylon.

And of course, Babylon is where Daniel has found himself. And by all appearances, the God of Israel is not the one calling the shots in Babylon. (Judging by the condition of his temple (vs. 2), it would seem that he doesn’t even call the shots in Jerusalem anymore!) Instead, Nebuchadnezzar and his gods seem to be in charge.

And yet, Daniel and his friends refuse to settle for the way things appear to be. Instead, they insist that there is a hidden reality that is more true than the one that first meets the eye. They insist that, even in Babylon, God is still God, and they are still His people. This may be why the refuse to eat the food from the King’s table (even when doing so may cost them, at minimum, their place of comfort and privilege). While scholars are divided on this issue, commentators like Joyce Baldwin and W. Sibley Towner suggest that it may be that eating food from the kings table would have been a public declaration of entering into a covenant with him. In other words, if Daniel and his friends ate the king’s food, they would have been declaring themselves to be the king’s men. But they are servants of a different King–one who is enthroned in heaven and whose jurisdiction knows no limits–and so they insist on following him. Even in Babylon.

As people who are fed at the Table of King Jesus, may the same be said of us!

Textual Observations

Questions to Consider